The Next Generation of Event Apps Is Talking to Attendees

Author: David McMillin       

From March 10–19, attendees at South by Southwest 2017 kept someone named Abby very busy. She answered more than 56,000 questions about which sessions to attend, how to navigate the expo hall, where to find exceptional tacos, and a range of other topics. She was one of the festival’s most important voices, but none of the 16,000 attendees who interacted with her will ever actually meet her. She’s a bot.

Big brands like American Express, Whole Foods, and Taco Bell have been embracing bot assistants for enhanced customer service, but SXSW 2017 marked the first time that chat bots have joined the conversation — literally — in the business-events industry. Jeff Sinclair, cofounder and CEO of Eventbase, the event-app company that built Abby and designed the SXSW app, said that the launch pushes mobile apps past their standard function — replacing a printed guide — and creates a new range of opportunities for on-site engagement. “The app is now an indispensable and intelligent personal concierge that elevates the attendee experience,” Sinclair said

When I caught up with Sinclair, he discussed the in-depth work that goes into creating a bot for a complicated event like SXSW. The Eventbase team began building Abby in December, and while Sinclair doesn’t know the exact amount of time that they spent training her, it’s safe to say there were many, many hours involved. “We worked with the SXSW help desk to understand some of their most common requests,” Sinclair said. “We built Abby to be able to handle more than 56,000 unique questions.”

Using natural language processing, Abby delivered human-like responses to questions. “SXSW put out a challenge to us,” Sinclair said. “Can you make the bot so good that attendees prefer to ask Abby instead of conducting their own searches?”

The data shows that the more than 16,000 attendees who submitted questions to Abby increased their interactions with her as the festival continued. Interactions with Abby increased by approximately 20 percent each day, and the top 1,000 users submitted an average of 17 questions.

Only the Beginning

While Sinclair is excited about the initial results, he’s looking forward to seeing how Abby can continue to develop. Just as a human learns more each day, Abby does, too. But her education is significantly accelerated. “It will be fascinating to watch the technology mature,” Sinclair said. “The speed with which Abby gets through grade school and high school and perhaps even earns a master’s degree will be faster than you think.”

SXSW attendees who were logged in while interacting with Abby — you didn’t have to enter credentials to use the bot — will have a head start on personalizing their 2018 experiences. Sinclair said that Abby will be able to build on their individual preferences and behaviors.

Other big names in the event space are exploring the possibilities of bots. Shortly after SXSW, Eventbase unveiled another bot as part of the app for IBM Interconnect 2017. While SXSW and IBM have the resources to invest in the emerging technology, Sinclair predicts that other organizations soon will be able to give their attendees virtual assistants, too.

“Right now, it’s at a price point that everyone won’t be able to afford, but in another year or so, I think the price point will come down,” Sinclair said. “Then, smaller events will be able to consider it, and the tools will offer the ability to do this in a more self-service fashion. We’re going to see a lot more evolution with bots in the event space.”

Interested in more insights from Eventbase’s Jeff Sinclair? Check out the March CMP series in Convene, which features his perspectives on how meetings can maximize the benefits of personalization.

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